Haiti

Haiti’s Jocelerme Privert: From ‘political prisoner’ to president

Haiti’s provisional President Jocelerme Privert, center right, walks with his wife Ginette Michaud and Chamber of Deputies President Cholzer Chancy, left front, during his installation ceremony, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016.
Haiti’s provisional President Jocelerme Privert, center right, walks with his wife Ginette Michaud and Chamber of Deputies President Cholzer Chancy, left front, during his installation ceremony, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. AP

In the days since his unconventional rise to the pinnacle of power, the man who successfully managed President Michel Martelly’s exit and then got parliament to elect him as the nation’s interim head of state, has been busy meeting with opposition and business leaders, political militants and experts on the economy.

Those who know Jocelerme Privert say that is his trademark modus operandi.

“There are very few individuals who have as strong a backing from both the formal, forward-looking private sector and the radical elements on the streets,” said Lionel Delatour, a private sector consultant and political analyst.

Since his release from a Haitian prison a decade ago, Privert, 62, has quietly remade his image.

He served as an adviser to former President René Préval, became an expert on Haiti’s most important relationship with Venezuela — earning the nickname Mr. Petrocaribe — and became such an indispensable resource on the tax system that a foreign diplomat once referred to him as one of Haiti’s smartest men.

A large sector has put their trust in me because they believe I can offer up a response to the crisis.

Provisional Haiti President Jocelerme Privert

The long-time government bureaucrat-turned-pragmatic politician, may now be facing his biggest makeover as Haiti’s interim president.

“I’ve spent all of my life serving the country, all of my life serving the State and now, I’ve arrived at this historic crossroads.,” Privert told the Miami Herald, explaining why he would take on what some define as “an impossible mission.” “A large sector has put their trust in me because they believe I can offer up a response to the crisis. My colleagues in the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies believe that my experience in government, my capacity to communicate with everyone in this society, to gather people, are right for this situation that almost ripped this country apart.”

So far, Privert is proving them right. His outreach has quieted the violent demonstrations that have erupted since the disputed Oct. 25 presidential vote. But with the search still ongoing for a consensus prime minister to lead a government more reflective of the opposition and parliament, questions remain: How long will the peace last? Can the calm and mild-mannered Privert steer the country toward legitimate elections?

He has put his hands in the grease and massage the problems.

Former Finance Minister Marie Carmelle Jean-Marie

“He has a profound knowledge of the State administration in all of its composites, whether it’s the executive or central government. He knows how it functions, all of its weaknesses and its strengths,” said former Finance Minister Marie Carmelle Jean-Marie, who was Privert’s professor when he enrolled in a course on economic systems at private Quisqueya University in 1992. “He doesn’t just have a theoretical knowledge that he learned in books. He has a practical one. He has put his hands in the grease and massage the problems.”

Under the negotiated accord dictating Haiti’s second transitional government in 12 years, Privert said his main role “is to quickly assure that the electoral process continues.” After selecting a prime minister by consensus, the new caretaker government must put in place a new Provisional Electoral Council. Together, they must decide what to do about the postponed presidential vote that currently pits Martelly-backed candidate Jovenel Moïse against former government technocrat Jude Célestin.

Célestin’s refusal to participate in last month’s presidential runoff after alleging “massive fraud” in favor of Moïse helped forced an indefinite postponement of the vote amid a violent outbreak, and Martelly’s departure without an elected successor. Third and fourth place finishers, former Sen. Moïse Jean-Charles and Dr. Maryse Narcisse, are also contesting their showing and have led systematic, and often violent street protests.

“The situation is very difficult,” said Sen. Nenel Cassy, a friend and former colleague of Privert, who resigned as president of the Senate and the National Assembly immediately after winning the 120-day job on Sunday. “There is an apparent calm, but there isn’t yet a solution to the crisis.

“There’s a lot of doubt about whether all of the political actors will agree for us to have elections; what methodology will be applied for a verification of the vote and what will be acceptable?” he added.

Despite the shaky political ground, Cassy believes that if anyone can manage a truce among Haiti’s fighting political factions, it is Privert, a married father of three daughters who entered the public service in 1979.

“He is close to a lot of people in the opposition and is someone who can establish control,” Cassy said.

Considered a moderate in the Fanmi Lavalas political movement, Privert today is closer to Préval than to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who tapped him to join his government not because of any Lavalas ideology but rather his competence and knowledge of decentralization. As Aristide’s interior minister, he successfully led the fight to get his and Cassy’s region, the Nippes, to become the country’s newest and smallest department.

Privert joined Préval’s kitchen cabinet just days after his release from prison after 26 months. He and then-Prime Minister Yvon Neptune were accused of being involved in a massacre of Aristide opponents in the town of La Scierie, St. Marc in the turbulent days before Aristide’s Feb. 29, 2004 resignation amid a bloody coup.

“Not only did the justice decide on this, but no one today has any reason or justification to associate my name, Jocelerme Privert, with the incident,” he said.

Préval, who had avoided bringing in high-profile Aristide supporters into his government after his 2006 return to the presidency, became impressed with Privert after hearing him discuss tax policy in a radio interview. Privert, a former director of the Haitian revenue service, soon became such an indispensable member of Préval’s inner-circle and expert on the country’s discounted-oil relationship with Venezuela that Préval nicknamed him, “Mr. Petrocaribe.”

Looking back at the last transition government, Privert said he was “a victim of political persecution,” and the U.S.-backed government had no legitimacy. Unlike then, today there is a parliament to provide checks and balances. He holds no hard feelings, he said, over his imprisonment where he went a year without seeing a judge, mounted a hunger strike alongside Neptune and briefly escaped. While in prison, he authored the book, The Haitian Tax Guide.

He’s very good at putting people at ease.

Francois Pierre-Louis

Privert’s political resurrection and the power shift back to the left has raised the specter of La Scierie with critics saying he isn’t qualified to lead Haiti through its current crisis. Some have also interpreted his rise as the restoration of Lavalas on the political terrain. Among those attending his official installation ceremony Sunday at the National Palace was Aristide’s wife, Mildred Trouillot-Aristide.

“Tell them to dream on. They are making a big mistake if they think of it that way and they are going to be very surprised,” said Francois Pierre-Louis, an associate professor of political science at Queens College, New York. “He has given everyone something to hold onto, some kind of hope.”

Smart, cunning and a calculating politician, Privert should not be underestimated, Pierre-Louis said.

Born on Feb. 1, 1954 in Petit-Trou de Nippes, Privert has positioned himself as a man who is above class and political interests. He often tells confidantes that he’s proof one can rise in Haitian society regardless of their origins or complexion. Unassuming, he knows how to take advantage of political opportunities, friends say. For example, when he became the head of the Haitian revenue service (DGI) in 1995, he was not the first in line.

He moved through the ranks of government, collaborating with the business community and gaining influential friends along the way. Last December as he contemplated a bid for the Senate presidency against the odds, he told an influential friend and member of the private sector that all that had happened to him in life had been a matter of circumstance.

“He’s very welcomed in the private sector unlike other Lavalas who are not welcomed,” Pierre-Louis said. “He’s very good at putting people at ease.”

Still, those relations didn’t stop Privert during his inaugural address to call on Haiti’s economic elite to show more empathy for the “economically weak.”

“In order to do his job and restore confidence among Haitians in the political process, it will be very helpful for Privert to refrain from overtly partisan positions,” said Robert MaGuire, a Haiti expert at George Washington University. “Perhaps his somewhat pragmatic past, given his alliances with Aristide, then Préval and, most recently, seemingly independent in the Senate while Martelly was in office, will serve him well in this regard.”

Some critics argue that Privert’s agenda remains unclear. But he disputes that.

“If we want to go to elections, the country has to be stable and there needs to be peace. The situation of misery, the crisis with food security, they have to be addressed,” he said. “We have to begin to find a response. Even if I don’t accomplish all, I can’t ignore them. I, at least, have to initiate them.”

On Wednesday, Kenneth Merten, Haiti special coordinator and deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said while the United States recognizes that challenges remain for Haiti to complete its electoral cycle and for the vote to take place on April 24, the presidential election process needs to run its course.

“The success of the Feb. 5 agreement between the parties depends on the interim leadership’s commitment to implement the terms of the agreement on the time line that’s outlined in it,” he said.

Privert, too, had a warning for the international community days earlier in his inaugural address. “However, the weakness of our institutions, the recurrence of our crises can in no way justify blunders, wrongdoing, which far from helping us, only accentuate the cut made to our national sovereignty.”

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